A call for improved use of data during crises

Better use of large-scale streams of digital data on population vulnerabilities, physical and medical infrastructure, human mobility, and environmental conditions is key to improving disaster preparedness and response, according to experts from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In a September 1, 2021, article in the New England Journal of Medicine, the authors—Satchit Balsari, assistant professor in the Department of Global Health and Population and a faculty member at the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights; Mathew Kiang, FXB fellow; and Caroline Buckee, professor of epidemiology and associate director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics—discussed the types of data streams that could be useful during disasters, such as information on medically vulnerable populations; satellite data on smoke plumes, floods, and infrastructure damage; air-quality data from sensors around the country; and aggregated human-mobility data from mobile phones.

Making such data more accessible to response planners and creating analytic tools and pipelines to ensure the data’s usefulness for decision-making during crises is crucial, according to the authors.

“To protect our most vulnerable communities from increasingly frequent climate-related extreme weather events, public health agencies and hospitals need to know—before, during, and after a disaster—who and where these vulnerable people are, their hazard-specific risks, and whether they have been displaced from their networks of care,” the authors wrote.

Read the NEJM article: Data in Crisis — Rethinking Disaster Preparedness in the United States